By 2003, after years of military sanctions, it was assessed by Western intelligence that the Iraqi Air Force still had approximately 130 attack aircraft and 180 fighters. of these, only 90-100 were deemed to be operational (MiG holdings may have included thirty MiG-21PF/MF, thirty MiG-23MLs, five MiG-25PDs and four MiG-29s at the end of 2002), enough to thwart any internal unrest but not to take on the might of the United States Air Force (USAF).
The Iraqi Army Air Corps obtained approximately fifty Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, of which at least ten were lost in air-to-air combat during the Iran-Iraq War. Allowing for a conservatively similar number lost to Iranian ground fire, only about half those remaining were likely to be serviceable (with the other 50 per cent cannibalized for spares). None were lost in the First Gulf War. This left the Iraqis a fleet of about ten Hinds, sufficient for operations against the Kurds and possible insurrection, but little else. Iraqi Gazelle and Bo-105 helicopters were in a similar state. Likewise, it is doubtful that 100 of its transport helicopters such as the Mi-8s were airworthy.
The IrAF learnt an important lesson during desert Storm; they could not resist or even withstand Coalition airstrikes, and therefore the key to survival was wide dispersal. Hiding places were limited as Coalition intelligence on Iraqi dispersal sites was first class, and the IrAF was only too aware of the danger from Coalition Special Forces ranging far and wide in their search for Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. one solution to this was deception. The IrAF had a lot of derelict airframes and many of these were placed visibly in revetments as decoys; the challenge for the Coalition was to detect those still operational. The IrAF lost more than 100 aircraft to Coalition military action in 1991; this time round, the battle damage assessment was much harder because of the numbers of Iraqi aircraft that were already little more than junk.
According to General Saadoun, the order to safeguard their aircraft rather than fight was issued in late February 2003, when they began to disassemble and conceal them. The IrAF, along with the Iraqi Army Air Corps (IrAAC), abandoned its air bases and civilian dispersal sites, which were well known to Coalition intelligence and scattered across the width and breadth of the country. Just as in desert Storm, the IrAF escaped north of Baghdad. this time round though, the IrAF knew better than to flee to Iran, because in 1991 this expedient failed to safeguard precious airframes after Tehran refused to return more than 100 front-line aircraft.
It is also alleged that the Iraqi Air defence Command (IrAdC), operating at 50 per cent of its capacity, also received instructions not to use its radars. Turf squabbles, deliberate or not, stymied the air defence of Baghdad. Some IrAdC units were reminded that this was the responsibility of the Republican Guard and ordered not to activate their weapons. Nonetheless, Lieutenant General Muzahim Sa’b Hassan al-tikriti, the IrAdC commander, was number twelve on the Americans’ wanted list.
The new Iraqi Air Force faced a similar challenge. ‘We are starting over,’ said IrAF Chief of Staff, Major General Kamal Barzanjy, in early 2006. ‘America has given us a lot of help, and we have already accomplished many things, but we need to keep growing.’ Saddam Hussein’s air force was allegedly the sixth largest in the world at the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War, with almost 800 fighter aircraft, but by 2003, only about 100 of these were still deemed operational. When operation Iraqi Freedom came to an end only about 50 per cent remained and most of these had been badly damaged by crude Iraqi concealment efforts. The IrAF’s commander, Lieutenant General Hamid Raja Shalah al-tikriti, was captured on 14 June 2003. The old Iraqi Air Force ceased to exist and its personnel, along with the rest of the Iraqi armed forces, were sent home.
A significant milestone was reached on 7 March 2006, with the opening of the first Iraqi air base at new Al Muthana, while the first all-Iraqi aircrew flew their inaugural mission on 28 November 2005. Members of the IrAF’s no. 23 Squadron navigated their C-130e transport aircraft from Ali Air Base, near Nasiriyah, in south-east Iraq, to new Al Muthana Air Base (the refurbished West Baghdad International Airport air base). They also flew their first cross-border humanitarian mission in February, air-lifting five children to Turkey for eye surgery.
On display at the official opening ceremony at new Al Muthana were the fledgling air force’s American-supplied C-130e transport aircraft and Russian-built Mi-17 transport helicopters. ‘It is important for Iraqis,’ said Major-General Kamal. ‘It is important for them to see tangible results and co-operation. Building up an air force takes so much work, finance and dedication.’
‘Now our Air Force supports the government and the people,’ said Colonel Jabber. ‘In the past the Air Force only supported Saddam. We are humanitarian now.’ No. 23 Squadron had first moved to new Al Muthana in January 2006. the base provided the foundation on which Iraq’s air force could rebuild with help from its Coalition allies.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) announced in April 2004 that it intended to help build a new IrAF, which would have a border patrol and surveillance role. Efforts to rehabilitate the discredited old IrAF and create a new force commenced in mid-2004, when more than 100 former IrAF personnel were sent for training with the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) in Amman. By the end of 2004, the new IrAF was 500-strong, equipped with a variety of light aircraft divided between bases at Tadji and Baghdad.
It was decided by the CPA that a major general would command a revitalized Iraq Air Force based at the Air Headquarters in Baghdad, and would act as the Chief of the Defence Staff ’s senior air adviser. Also, the IrAF’s air missions would be fully integrated into Coalition air activity through the multi-national Force Iraq. The new IrAF was principally tasked with transporting the army, border policing and surveillance of national assets. It is also involved in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
The new IrAF first became operational in mid-2004 with a squadron of six ex- RJAF UH-1H Iroquois utility helicopters stationed at Tadji. they were tasked with border and coastal patrol, troop transport and search and rescue. the new IrAF acquired an initial tactical airlift capability in October 2004 using two ex-RJAF C- 130Bs based at the Baghdad Air Station.
The United Arab emirates provided the IrAF with seven Comp Air 7Sl aircraft and four Bell Jet ranger helicopters, which were flown by No. 3 Squadron. the latter became operational in April 2005 and is based at new Al Muthana. the first four 7Sl arrived at Basra Air Base on 13 November 2004.
Similarly, Jordan has also supplied two Seeker SB7l-360 and sixteen CH2000 light reconnaissance aircraft that are equipping No. 70 and No. 2 Squadrons.
A follow-on order was anticipated, but instead the new IrAF opted for sixteen US SAMA CH2000. Jordan Aerospace Industries manufactured these aircraft under licence from the Canadian Zenair Company (which builds the Zenair Zenith 2000) and delivered during 2005. The CH2000 Military Tactical Surveillance Aircraft (MTSA) variant is a two-seater trainer equipped with infrared thermal imaging and daytime TV camera. Half the CH-2000 equip No. 2 Squadron at Kirkuk Air base.
In the face of the escalating security situation, from November 2005 the United States Air Force (USAF) in theatre worked to stand up the new IrAF as quickly as possible. The new IrAF suffered its first aircraft loss on 30 May 2005, when one of the 7SL crashed near Jalula, 80km north-east of Baquba, while operating out of Kirkuk Air Base. Unfortunately, fatalities included an Iraqi airman and four US servicemen. They were buried in Arlington national Cemetery. Iraqi Air Force Captain Ali Hussam Abass Alrubaeye, thirty-four, became the first Iraqi ever buried at the United States’ national military cemetery.
It seemed, post-Saddam, Iraq would abandon its Soviet aircraft legacy. However, the new IrAF is flying Soviet-designed aircraft. During 14-17 February 2006, eight former Polish Mi-17 Hip helicopters were delivered to new Al Muthana by a Russian An-124 transport aircraft. Reportedly, these were the first systems that the IrAF had acquired directly without CPA funding. The IrAF intended to be operating a total of twenty-four Mi-17s by mid-2007 from Taji Air Base in a deal worth US $105 million.